The East Asia Summit (EAS) will be held in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Oct 30, with United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov attending it as "special guests". The EAS, an important regional leadership forum to promote cooperation in East Asia, was first held in 2005.
After World War II, the economic miracles of Japan and the Four Mini-Dragons (the Republic of Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan and Hong Kong) enabled East Asia to exert its influence on the world. Since the 1990s, powered by China's fast economic development, the East Asian economy has maintained strong growth and promoted regional economic cooperation.
In recent years, important global powers have converged in East Asia because they want to cash in on the region's fast development. That the US and Russia will become formal EAS members from next year, even though geographically they are outside East Asia, and their active participation at the summit prove the importance of the region.
The East Asian order began centering on major powers' relations with China some years ago. After the rupturing of ties between China and the erstwhile Soviet Union in the 1960s, the old "bipolar structure" dominated by Washington and Moscow in East Asia was replaced by the "China-US-Soviet Union triangular relationship".
After the end of the Cold War, China, Japan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) became the three major powers balancing each other in the region. Now that the US and Russia are formally taking part in the EAS, the region's structure is becoming "pentagonal". China is at the center of the pentagon, with the US, Russia, Japan, ASEAN and India holding an angle each.
The US and Russia are eager to join the EAS because East Asia represents the hope and future of the world economy. The global financial crisis dealt a severe blow to the US' strength and international standing, and depressed the European Union's economy. In contrast, the East Asian economy not only proved resilient, but also shouldered the heavy responsibility of leading the world economy to recovery.
Over the past decade, the decline of the US and the rise of China have presented a stark contrast and fuelled people's suspicion over the sustainability of the capitalist mode of economic development. The global financial crisis has lent credence to their suspicion.
East Asian economic integration has been deepening after the establishment of the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area and the progress of the "10+3" (ASEAN plus China, Japan and the Republic of Korea) regional economic cooperation. The peace that has prevailed in East Asia for two decades has made the US realize that China has replaced it as the dominant player in terms of security in the region.
Out of distrust of China and fearing that the US would be "squeezed out of Asia", the Barack Obama administration began strengthening its existing alliances and striking new partnerships in East Asia with the aim of renewing its leadership in the region and contain China's rise.
Russia, on its part, is interested in East Asian cooperation because it wants to cash in on the region's fast economic growth, and has been participating in the EAS as an observer since the first EAS in 2005. Besides, it also wants to renew its influence in Southeast Asia.
The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and the ASEAN Regional Forum are the two main mechanisms that the US can "participate in and control" to exert its influence on the East Asian cooperation process. But in recent years the US' presence has been nominal and Russia has had a limited influence in the region. True, Moscow is a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, but the organization's purpose and functions have nothing to do with East Asian cooperation. So, the US and Russia can achieve their goals only by joining the EAS.
The participation of the US and Russia will further complicate the Oct 30 summit, which not only will turn from a "10+6" to a "10+8" group, but also cover more subjects, including regional security.
The US is likely to use the EAS to "reaffirm its leading role in Asia" and continue to pursue its Asian strategy on the basis of "multilateral mechanism", advocate its so-called universal values, try to make ASEAN part of its alliance and continue to put pressure on China on the South China Sea disputes.
Japan will continue to blame China for the territorial disputes, fall back on the US, cozy up to ASEAN and try to stir a storm over "China's expansionism" and "Chinese hegemony". Plus, it will use the EAS to defend the mistakes it has committed for lack of political wisdom.
ASEAN will keep playing a leading role in all new regional cooperation mechanisms. And some Southeast Asian states may try to seek support from the US on the South China Sea disputes.
China and Russia cooperate with each other on many international issues. So, the two countries are likely to support each other and coordinate at the Hanoi summit.
The US Democratic Party is likely to lose the midterm elections and the Obama administration has trouble even taking care of itself. So even if the US is more than willing to lead Asia, it lacks the power to do so. The US cannot promise to meet ASEAN's demand for a free trade area and cannot give substantive assistance to some countries that have territorial disputes with China. The US cannot get directly involved in the Diaoyu Islands dispute between China and Japan either, and ASEAN members are unlikely to echo Japan's unreasonable demand.
A fast developing China is the guarantee of stability in East Asia. Therefore, China should maintain its calm and confidence at the Hanoi summit. It should emphasize the inclusiveness of cooperation in East Asia, voice its support openly for the US and Russia to join the summit, emphasize the leading role of ASEAN in the evolution of the regional structure, reaffirm its determination to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity, refrain from talking about any dispute and not over-react to any challenge thrown by the US, Japan or any other country.
The author is research scholar and deputy director of the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
(China Daily 10/28/2010 page9)